The origin of the dances of Sri Lanka lies with the indigenous people of Sri Lanka, the Wanniyala-Aetto and "yakkas" ("those who work with iron").
There are three main styles of Sri Lankan classical dance:
The Kandyan dances of the Hill Country, known as Uda Rata Natum;
The low country dances of the southern plains, known as Pahatha Rata Natum;
Sabaragamuwa dances, or Sabaragamuwa Natum.
Kandyan dance takes its name from Kandy, the last royal capital of Sri Lanka, which is situated about 120 kilometers from the modern capital at Colombo. This genre is today considered the classical dance of Sri Lanka. In Sanskrit terminology it is considered pure dance (nrtta); it features a highly developed system of "tala" (rhythm), provided by cymbals called "thalampataa".
There are five distinct types; the ves, naiyandi, uddekki, pantheru, and vannams.
The three classical dance forms differ in their styles of body-movements and gestures, in the costumes worn by the performers, and in the shape and size of the drums used to provide rhythmic sound patterns to accompany the dancing.
The drum used in Kandyan dancing is known as the Geta Bera, the drum in Ruhunu (low country) dancing as the "Yak Bera", and drum in Sabaragamu dancing as the "Davula" (the word Bera or Bereya in Sinhale means "Drum") The Geta Bera is beaten with the hands as is also Yak Bera, while the Davula is played with a stick on one side and with one hand on the other side; the Geta Bera has a body which tapers on both sides while the Yak Bera and the Davula both have cylindrical bodies.
The main distinguishing feature between Kandyan and Sabaragamu dancing, and Ruhunu dancing, is that Ruhunu dancers wear masks.
"Ves" dance, the most popular, originated from an ancient purification ritual, the Kohomba Yakuma or Kohomba Kankariya. The dance was propitiatory, never secular, and performed only by males. The elaborate ves costume, particularly the headgear, is considered sacred and is believed to belong to the deity Kohomba.
Only toward the end of the 19th century were ves dancers first invited to perform outside the precincts of the Kankariya Temple at the annual Kandy Perahera festival. Today the elaborately costumed ves dancer epitomizes Kandyan dance.
Dancers in Naiyandi costume perform during the initial preparations of the Kohomba Kankariya festival, during the lighting of the lamps and the preparation of foods for the demons. The dancer wears a white cloth and white rurban, beadwork decorations on his chest, a waistband, rows of beads around his neck, silver chains, brass shoulder plates, anklets, and jingles. This is a graceful dance, also performed in Maha Visnu (Vishnu) and Kataragama Devales temples on ceremonial occasions.
Uddekki is a very prestigious dance. Its name comes from the uddekki, a small lacquered hand drum in the shape of an hourglass, about seven and half inches (18 centimeters) high, believed to have been given to people by the gods. The two drumskins are believed to have been given by the god Iswara, and the sound by Visnu; the instrument is said to have been constructed according to the instructions of Sakra and was played in the heavenly palace of the gods. It is a very difficult instruments to play. The dancer sings as he plays, tightening the strings to obtain variations of pitch.
The pantheruwa is an instrument dedicated to the goddess Pattini. It resembles a tambourine (without the skin) and has small cymbals attached at intervals around its circumference. The dance is said to have originated in the days of Prince Siddhartha, who became Buddha. The gods were believed to use this instrument to celebrate victories in war, and Sinhala kings employed pantheru dancers to celebrate victories in the battlefield. The costume is similar to that of the uddekki dancer, but the pantheru dancer wears no beaded jacket and substitutes a silk handkerchief at the waist for the elaborate frills of the uddekki dancer.
Vana The word "vannam" comes from the Sinhala word "varnana" (descriptive praise). Ancient Sinhala texts refer to a considerable number of "vannams" that were only sung; later they were adapted to solo dances, each expressing a dominant idea. History reveals that the Kandyan king Sri Weeraparakrama Narendrasinghe gave considerable encouragement to dance and music. In this Kavikara Maduwa (a decorated dance arena) there were song and poetry contests.
It is said that the kavi (poetry sung to music) for the eighteen principal vannams were composed by an old sage named Ganithalankara, with the help of a Buddhist priest from the Kandy temple. The vannams were inspired by nature, history, legend, folk religion, folk art, and sacred lore, and each is composed and interpreted in a certain mood (rasaya) or expression of sentiment. The eighteen classical vannams are gajaga ("elephant"), thuranga ("horse"), mayura ("peacock"), gahaka ("conch shell"), uranga ("crawling animals"), mussaladi ("hare"), ukkussa ("eagle"), vyrodi ("precious stone"), hanuma ("monkey"), savula ("cock"), sinharaja ("lion"), naga ("cobra"), kirala ("red-wattled lapwing"), eeradi ("arrow"), Surapathi (in praise of the goddess Surapathi), Ganapathi (in praise of the god Ganapathi), uduhara (expressing the pomp and majesty of the king), and assadhrusa (extolling the merit of Buddha). To these were added samanala ("Butterfly"),bo (the sacred bo tree at Anuradhapura, a sapling of the original bo tree under which Buddha attained enlightenment), and hansa vannama ("swan"). The vannama dance tradition has seven components. dog dance cat dance lion dance ostrich dance parrot dance etc ...
Low Country Dances (Pahatharata Netum)
Sabaragamu dances (Sabaragamuwa Netum)
The "Devil Dances" are an attempt to respond to the common belief that certain ailments are caused by unseen hands and that they should be chased away for the patient to get cured. If an individual or a family is not doing well, the village-folk believe that it's because that person or the family is being harassed by unseen hands. A 'tovil' ceremony is the answer.
The 'tovil' can be a simple ritualistic ceremony at home restricted to family and immediate neighbours or involving the whole village like the 'gam-maduva' or the 'devol-maduva' which is closely linked to the worship of gods. Masked dancers take part in at least two of the well-known 'tovil' ceremonies referred to as the 'Maha Sohon Samayama' and the 'Gara Yakuma'. The mention of 'Maha Sohona' frightens the people since he is believed to be the demon of the graveyards.
The performer disguises himself as a bear and wears a mask and a dress to resemble one. Often the 'tovil' involves the 'sanni' dances where all the dancers wear masks. The 'daha ata sanniya' refers to eighteen ailments with a demon being responsible for each one of them.
Dancers wearing masks take part in processions while at certain ceremonies, masks are used to depict different characters. Of later origin are the masks worn by children and teenagers at street performances during Vesak. Popularly known as 'olu bakko' for the simple reason that oversize masks are worn, these performances keep the younger-folk, in particular, entertained.
The simple version of the devil dance ritual usually starts in the morning with the building of the stage, decorations and preparation of the costumes. The performers build an intricate stage before which the dancing commences. The stage consists of a wall made of freshly cut natural materials such as coconut palm tree and banana tree trunks. Depending on the region and the available materials the stage may also be coated with clay mud. The dances are accompanied by drummers which also herald the begin of the ritual. The distinctive sound ensures all neighbours turn up to take part. The full ritual usually lasts until the morning, with the dancers consuming betel-nut juice and drinking coke to stay awake. Dances can however also go on for multiple days.
Apart from the classical dance forms there are also folk dances, which are associated with folk activities and festivities. Leekeli (stick dance),kalagedi (pot dance), Raban (a hand drum), polkatu (a coconut), folk dances prevalent at the present time.
There is also in the low country a dance-drama called Kolam in which the performers wear masks depicting animals or people such as kings or high officials, and provides amusement and social satire. It has been suggested by scholars that Kolam may have developed from the ritual known as Sanni Yakuma and had later become a dance-drama independent of ritual elements.
Dances Today and Then
The classical dance forms are associated with performance of various rituals and ceremonies which are centuries old and are based on folk religion and folk beliefs going back to before the advent and of Buddhism and its acceptance by the Sinhalese people in the 3rd century BC. These rituals and ceremonies reflect the values, beliefs and customs of an agricultural civilisation.
The pre-Buddhistic folk religion consisted of the belief in a variety of deities and demons who were supposed to be capable of awarding benefits and blessings but also causing afflictions and diseases. Accordingly they had to be either propitiated or exorcised with offerings and the performance of rituals and ceremonies.
The repertoire of Dances in Kandyan dancing has its origins in the ritual known as the Kohomba Kankariya, which is performed to propitiate the deity known as Kohomba for the purpose of obtaining relief from personal afflictions or from communal calamities such as pestilence. Although this ritual is rarely performed at the present the various dances associated with its performance could be seen in the Kandy Perahera, and annual religion-cultural event which takes place in the city of Kandy in honour of the sacred tooth-relic of the Buddha housed in the Dalada Maligawa, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth.
The repertoire of Ruhunu dancing has its origins in the rituals of the Devol Maduwa - used to propitiate the Deity/demon Devol - and in exorcistic rituals known as the Rata Yakuma and the Sanni Yakuma - associated with various demons who are supposed to cause a variety of afflictions and incurable illnesses.
Saparagamu dancing is associated with the ritual known as the Gam Maduwa, which is performed to propitiate the goddess Pattini. The purpose is to obtain a good harvest or to ward off evil or to be rid of and infectious disease.